Category Archives: Prizes

Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell


The Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Dynasty is in trouble. In the fading resort of Swamplandia!, the family is reeling from Hilola Bigtree’s death from cancer, and as the Chief’s debts mount up, the children each find their own ways to deal with their terror of the unknown and save the park that is their home. But Kiwi has gone to work for a rival theme park, Ossie has found a boyfriend who may or may not be a ghost, and the Chief has gone AWOL, so it’s down to plucky, 13-year-old Ava, her red alligator, and the mysterious Bird Man to enter the swamp and fix their family fortunes. But the swamps are treacherous, and not everything is as it seems…

Told from both Kiwi and Ava’s perspectives, this is a darkly innocent narration. I love Ava’s voice, her bravado and her bizarre frames of reference that only a girl who grew up in an alligator-wrestling theme park could come up with. Lines like: ‘I could feel the secret rolling between the four of us like an egg in a towel.’

Her grief about her mother is expertly woven into the consciousness of a girl who does not know how to express it, manifesting itself not in passages about how she misses her mother, but in nervous tics, a lack of assurance about what to believe, and a desperate search for affection when she meets the Bird Man.

The gator-swamp is an excellent, other-worldly setting that makes it impossible to know what we as readers can and can’t believe in. Perhaps ghosts are real, if they can create such a lasting impression on a family. Perhaps men can commune with animals, if the Bigtree legacy is to be believed. It reminded me of Life of Pi, the way that the line between magical realism and traumatic experience were blurred.

The story of Louis Thanksgiving, that one heartless reviewer on Goodreads who clearly likes her stories flat and dull and obvious from the outset, was brilliant. Like an orphan from a fairytale, Louis was only adopted to serve as cheap labour on a Florida farm. His background is so starved of love and opportunity that the Depression is, to him, a blessing.

Happiness could be felt as a pressure too, Louis realised, more hard-edged and solid than longing, even… in fact he’d been so poor in Iowa that he couldn’t settle on one concrete noun to wish for- a real father? A girl in town? A thousand acres? A single friend? In contrast, this new happiness had angles. Happiness like his was real; it had a jewel-cut shadow, and he could lose it.

And once you’ve followed Louis’ tragic, wasteful, pointless story to its conclusion, you’ve fallen a little bit in love with him too, just like Ossie. Whether or not he is a ‘real ghost’, you are brought face to face with the injustices of poverty, bad planning and a lack of accountability. That’s why we get the ‘unbelievable’ story of Kiwi going to Harvard, because he could never go – the system is rigged so that of course he could never go. It is a notion more fantastic than a 13-year-old alligator wrestler. In its own, dreamy, teenage way, Swamplandia! is as furious as a much more explicitly political book.

A lot of reviewers have criticised this book for being too dark (stupid), for not properly explaining one of the climaxes of the book (stupid, because everything in life comes with an explanation) and for stranding us with an implausibly happy ending. But if you try to pick out what is ‘plausible’ about this book you entirely miss the point – it is getting tangled up in this problem that makes the book so compelling. And I defy you not to care about these kids. I couldn’t put it down.

First line: Our mother performed in starlight.
In a tweet: A dark, murky, terrifying tale of adolescence.


Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Didn't spot the bridge until the end of the book!NW takes a cross-section of a community in Willesden, North London, following the lives of four characters who grew up in the same run-down Caldwell estate. Leah and Natalie, childhood friends, have found their friendship strained by the different directions their lives have taken. Leah is content in her job and content in her marriage, except she secretly takes the pill to avoid the baby they both claim to want. Her narration is the most fractured and meandering, merging description and memory, thoughts and senses. In contrast, Natalie (originally Keisha) has thrown off her council-estate roots completely and reinvented herself as a lawyer living on the well-heeled outskirts of their community. But her transformation has left her with an identity crisis, as filling in her various roles as wife, mother and lawyer give her no clue to who Natalie (or Keisha) is. Felix is a young man with a new girlfriend, a pocketful of cash and the world at his feet. It’s the most inspiring and upbeat part of the novel (except we know that it’s not). And Nathan is, for most of them, the spectre of Caldwell – scarred, poverty stricken, and angry.

The narration reflects the consciousness of the characters themselves. It’s the free indirect speech of your A-levels, and then some (Mrs Dalloway is an obvious, and probably conscious, point of comparison). Chapter 37 recurs, out of order, because of its special significance for Leah. Natalie’s life is broken into 185 numbered segments that maybe smack a little of the creative writing class, but which I thought worked rather well. Smith’s writing is meant to evoke the bustle and jostle of London, and it is as dense, as crowded and sometimes as antagonising as London can be.

In fact, reading the novel I ended up with a Leah/Natalie split of my own. One side of me enjoyed the undoubtedly good and sometimes brilliant writing, the sheer joy of a novel that meanders rather than drives, sprawls rather than directs, and the pithy literary asides (‘People were not people but merely an effect of language. You could conjure them up and kill them in a sentence.’)

But the other side wondered whether there isn’t something missing. I’m not saying I wanted a moral of the story, but I did feel like it was a novel supposedly about class that wasn’t actually saying very much. For example, it wants to hate and satirize the middle classes, but while it manages a certain amount of self-aware eye-rolling, you don’t get the sense she really means it. Leah and her husband scoff at Natalie’s success, but they also crave it, and Natalie herself rolls her eyes at herself during one (stereo)typical brunch.

But the Thing that happens that knits the four characters together? That, that is reaffirming a whole load of stereotypes – those who seem to be scammers are, the scarred junkie commits the crime, a phone call to the police will sort it all out, the only victim of gang crime worth mourning is one whose making something of himself. Her Nathan section is the shortest and the one where the character is kept at the furthest remove, as though Smith herself has fallen victim to her middle class squeamishness and couldn’t quite bear the thought of spending too much time with him. But another part of me wonders whether she’s challenging us to look at how our prejudices work? We want to read books about working-class girl done good because it makes us feel more comfortable, as though we don’t hold the prejudices about the Nathans and the Shars that we undoubtedly do.

I don’t know. These aren’t demands that I would make of just any author, or most books. But they are ones that this book made me make! Like Zadie Smith, I had trouble wrapping this book up in a neat little parcel too. There are parts of exquisite craftsmanship next to some rather more difficult aspects (and a few editorial booboos – who carries around a bus ticket in London?). The infrastructure isn’t without its faults, but you can still have a great time. A bit like London…*

Other London-based metaphors for NW are gratefully received, nay, ENCOURAGED.

First line: The fat sun stalls by the phone masts.
In a tweet: A big job for a big city.

Judging a Booker by its Cover

Bing bing bing bing bing bing bing! It’s that time of year already! The Booker list is upon us, and we can now spend the next three months rifling through Waterstones displays and gnashing our teeth about the choices on offer.

Sadly for me I have only read a grand total of ONE of the longlist thus far, so as far as insider tips for the winners go, I got nothin’. But then I thought, you know what? Rather than read them, why not just make vague and arbitrary assumptions on them based on their covers?!

The Teleportation Accident
Bring up the Bodies
The Lighthouse

The Yips – Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)
A modern reworking of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, this time set in the contemporary world of professional golf tournaments. A down-and-out sports agent becomes obsessed with the rat’s natural proclivity for scouting out small holes, and how that might be harnessed to create a golfing champion. But all that seems like a pipe dream… until he meets a punk-rock frontman with a penchant for smashing up his guitars – and a swing to die for.

The Teleportation Accident – Ned Beauman (Sceptre)
Dr. Who slash fic in which he regenerates into a woman and becomes trapped in the 1920s. Posing as a Hall of Mirrors kiosk attendant while (s)he tries to fix the Tardis without the use of plastics, things take a distinctly erotic turn when the Louise Brooks look-a-like contest comes to town, with one particularly spunky contender.

Philida – Andre Brink (Harvill Secker)
A young girl comes to terms with her traumatic past on a plantation by learning to commune with the animals. Dr. Doolittle meets Jonathan Norrell and Mr Strange meets Wide Sargasso Sea.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng  (Myrmidon Books)
A lonely Japanese woman finds an outlet from her loveless marriage by corresponding with the local newspaper’s gardening advice columnist.

Skios – Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber)
If you liked Mama Miayou’ll love Skios!

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)
A down on his luck but kindly tramp chances across a battered copy of The Canterbury Tales. Inspired by their spontaneity and his affinity with Middle English (which he has honed through years of listening to Tinny Tim garble through 6 cans or more of special brew), he follows in their footsteps.

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)
One salmon’s story.

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
Cheating! I actually read this one.

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore (Salt)
Variously described as a scathing comment on Cameron’s Britain or a Pynchion satire of modernist subjectivity, this is an avant-garde piece told from the point of view of the lighthouse. It only consists of the words ‘off’ and ‘on’.

Umbrella – Will Self (Bloomsbury)
Old Bill Spokes has lost his wife, is abused by his two grown children, and now even his cat has left him. All he has left is his bespoke umbrella manufacturing business, and he hasn’t had a customer in a month. But all that changes when a man walks into his shop with a request for a very special umbrella indeed. Spokes soon finds himself caught up between two warring East end families – and making the greatest umbrella of his life.

Narcopolis – Jeet Thayll (Faber & Faber)
A chance encounter with a tourist leaves young Indian snake charmer obsessed with the works of Picasso. Soon, his reproductions are picked up by a travelling art dealer who launches him onto the Young British Artist scene. But when Damien Hirst starts to take a little too much interest in his snakes, things become rather less…charming.

Communion Town – Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate)
An insightful look at using public records to find the optimal location for your new church.

So I reckon that’s got to be at least 90% accurate, right?